As a Washington Post columnist blames movies for Elliot Rodger, why it’s time this archaic, dangerous reappropriation of blame stopped.
Recently, Washington Post columnist Ann Hornaday published an article surmising that Elliot Rodger (the 22-year-old Californian responsible for the deaths of seven people on May 23rd) enacted fantasies created and inflated by films, including the work of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow. The two were naturally horrified and offended by her insinuations, and a Twitter and video discourse ensued. Hornaday put forward that the “frat-boy fantasies” depicted in these men’s films had informed Rodger’s expectations of reality and ultimately contributed to his destructive desires.
The issue of films, and more recently video games, being blamed for human tragedy is by no means a new one
The issue of films (and more recently video games) being blamed for human tragedy is by no means a new one. From Lon Chaney’s vampire teeth in 1927’s London After Midnight, to a cat eating a mouse in 1980’s Inferno, it’s all been cited as genuinely disturbing and dangerous stuff. But what is it that pushes a film into what is perceived to be “dangerous” territory? One might assume it is the content, and to some extent it is, however this is not always as critical a factor as one might imagine. Head censor James Ferman’s obsession with what he perceived to be imitable violence is an apt example.
Ferman was in charge of the British Board of Classification from 1975 to 1999, during which time he made the controversial decision to allow Salò, an art film by Paolo Pasolini (and a distinctly NSFW Google search), to be shown unclassified in private clubs against the insistence of the Department of Public Prosecutions. While ultimately having to cut the film, Ferman sent a letter to the DPP stating that “the portrayal of evil in works of art is not the same thing as its endorsement”. Despite his level-headed reaction to Salò, in the wake of the Hungerford massacre, Ferman’s approach to Rambo III was very different.
While the examiners’ reports of the film seem to suggest a consensus that, with some cuts, Rambo III warranted a 15 rating, the film was eventually passed as an 18. One of the reports called the film “a political hot-potato, what with all the hoo-hah about Rambo II and Hungerford”, and another comments that it is “naive to believe that we can always act without regard to political realities”. The reports consistently reference a need to placate those rallying against the film and not that the film itself was dangerous. A panel member of the time has retrospectively noted the “completely ill advised linking in the media between what Michael Ryan did in Hungerford and the Rambo Films” – a worryingly familiar sentiment.
When a study didn’t produce panic inducing results, the investigation overseer stole all the research and fired the research team
Clearly, what the censors may label as dangerous has as much to do with political timing and personal opinion as it does content. There is, however, another less pragmatic force vying to stop us from becoming copy-cat killers: the moral crusaders. Borne of the almighty whine of Mary Whitehouse, the most interesting period of moral movie panic was the ‘Video Nasties’ era, wherein lobbyists, pressure groups and MPs tried to actually prove the danger of obscene films with various studies.
One notable study was being carried out by Brian Brown and his team at an Oxford research unit. When their findings did not produce the panic-inducing results desired, the investigation overseer, Dr. Clifford Hill – a sociology lecturer with pro-censorship interests – broke into the unit, stole all the research then fired the research team. Despite this, the movement’s front man, Graham Bright MP, still appeared on national television adamantly claiming that there was “research taking place and it will show that these films not only affect young people, but I believe they affect dogs as well”. Needless to say, there was never any proof for these clams.
Similarly, a Harvard study funded by the US Department of Justice into links between video game violence with real crime also yielded non-panic-worthy results, which naturally lead to the study being somewhat buried. Indeed, an FBI profiling of notorious school shooters which took exposure to violent video games and films into account found that the only strong correlations between perpetrators were that they were male and typically depressed – which leads us back to Elliot.
An FBI profiling of school shooters found that the only strong correlations were that they were male and typically depressed
The sad fact is that some people are disturbed, alone and angry, and there is no evidence to suggest that any filmmaker, or alarmist for that matter, is going to change that. No doubt it is easier to get a film cut than it is to rehabilitate someone from a dangerous state of mind, but it is surely a worthier cause than to repeat the same, ignorant denial from the latest bandwagon. Director Markus Schleinzer once said that “a society can only develop to the same extent that it is able to get to grips with its offenders”, and judging by Ann Hornaday’s rehashing of a tired and ill-informed argument, we still have a long way to go.
More on film: Censoring smoking in film is tantamount to propaganda
Featured image: Universal
Inset images: TriStar; Grindhouse Releasing